Resources, pt. 3

Many of the resources I’ve used and referenced over the course of the project are spread throughout the posts as links and text. In this series I’ll collect and describe some of the most important project resources thus far.

Today focuses on online stores for buying project materials.

Stores

Sparkfun

Sparkfun almost made it onto the resources list under “learning about microcontrollers.” Earlier this year I visited Sparkfun headquarters to take a couple electronics classes. While I was there, the staff talked about the company’s vision to build an education platform and community website with online classes. The new site was supposed to have launched “yesterday,” and that was in January.

Four months later and the only thing that has changed is the price of one of the courses I took: it’s increased from $50 to $300. A bit steep for a day class, especially considering the material the course covers. When I took the class it had only been taught once before, and a major update to the Arduino platform had recently been released. None of the course material had been updated for the new version, so the class (quite understandably) fell apart. However, those who wish to take the course now are instructed to roll back their version of the Arduino IDE. In other words, they’ve done nothing to update the class since I took it. Saddest of all, their courses are still not available online, so only people who can make the trek to Boulder can participate.

But their store is great. One of the reasons I tried their weekend courses was because of how impressed I was with their service. I ordered a few electronics parts from them on Christmas Eve, and they arrived before New Years – packaged very niftily in a special Sparkfun box. Sparkfun carries a likely candidate for the magnetometer sensor that could end up on a Sprite and, more importantly, links to some useful videos and tutorials for using it on the product page.

Maker Shed

Before the internet, hobbyists had few choices of where to buy their electronic equipment. Some had no other options than the local Radio Shack. Over the past twenty years, with RadioShack continuing to move away from hobby supplies and more towards consumer electronics, some had no place to go at all. That’s why online maker stores are so great; anyone with an internet connection can shop.

Maker Shed is one of the first online maker stores I happened to stumble across. The store has always carried a great mix of products, and their website has gone through many (much needed) improvements over the past year. The shop flies under the MAKE banner, which also includes a quarterly magazine, a blog, Maker Faires all across the globe, and more.

Maker Shed is something of a Radio Shack done right for the internet age, with a strong connection to the DIY community. I wouldn’t call them perfect – their shipping is generally slow and expensive, their website could use further improvements – but they’re definitely doing something right. Enough right, in fact, for RadioShack to sit up and take notice. Sensing that there’s money in the DIY scene after all, the ‘Shack asked the MAKE blog to run a survey to see how they could better meet makers’ needs.

A good portion of the electronics equipment I’ve mentioned so far – like the XBees and nearly all of my Arduinos – has come from Maker Shed.

Adafruit

While I can’t vouch personally for the Adafruit store – I’ve never bought anything direct from there – this list would feel incomplete without it. Adafruit Industries was founded by Limor “Ladyada” Fried, one of Fast Company’s most influential women in technology in 2011 for her pioneering work in open source electronics and the first woman engineer to be featured on the cover of Wired magazine. Fried helped to define what it means for hardware to be open source, and she continues to help drive independent electronics development. She famously placed a bounty on developing open source drivers for the Microsoft Kinect after its launch in late 2010, a move that lead to independent projects that were more impressive than the Xbox games and later spurred Microsoft to release an official SDK.

One of the things that sets Adafruit Industries apart from the other stores listed here is the emphasis on in-house development. The store carries the staples – various ‘duinos, BeagleBones, XBees – but a large portion of the products in stock are kits that have been designed by the Adafruit team. These kits range from various Arduino shields to sensor packs to SD card breakout boards. I purchased my XBee adapter kit from MakerShed, but it was designed by Adafruit Industries. This kind of cross-pollination is not uncommon in the maker scene; in addition to running Adafruit Industries, Fried sits on the advisory board for MAKE Magazine. The maker community continues to grow daily, but the internet helps to ensure that it remains a small world.

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